Day One Undead Australia, 2003 Director Michael & Peter Spierig North American Premiere
If you only see one Australian zombie comedy this year...
Undead is a very funny crowd-pleasing zombie flick. The special effects are one of the calling cards here, and they are very impressive for a film made way out of the mainstream. Especially since the film deals with a small Australian town bombarded by meteorites, assaulted by zombies, deluged by acid rain and under the surveillance of a mysterious alien presence. The film makers succeed in making that unlikely combination believable.
The film’s charm rests almost entirely on its leads, with Felicity Mason playing Rene as a woman who from the very first frame of the film knows that in any situation the absolutely worst possible thing is going to happen. It helps that with her large expressive eyes, Ms. Mason looks like a 21st century version of Pola Negri.
The supporting character who truly steals the show though is Mungo McKay as Marion, the town survivalist and nut-job, and former owner of the now bankrupt “Marion’s World of Weapons” Playing Marion with a voice that sounds like Mel Gibson coated his throat with road tar and gargled razor blades, Marion is an inspired creation part Man With No Name, part Mad Max, and part The Killer. Marion is a crowd-pleasing character with his ability to pull guns out of literally anywhere. He is also the key to the mystery of the film, since at the start of the film he has been ostracized by the community because of his ravings about the alien invaders and their zombie fish. Unfortunately, Marion is probably the least prepared survivalist in the history of film, having as a example an impregnable bunker with only one exit that he has yet to fill with either food or water. He’s no Burt Gummer in other words.
All that said, Undead does suffer from being released the same year as 28 Days. Granted that Undead is a comedy and 28 Days is a drama, but seeing the two films really drives home the point that 28 Days has stolen a march on the whole zombie genre, breathing life into a tired trope.
Part of the problem is probably that zombie films of all horror genres have always been the most political. The shuffling dead acting as a metaphor for other things. Undead is no different, but its targets are rather broad and obvious even if the film manages to sneak up on you with its point. It’s not like I needed a zombie movie to tell me that Australia is zenophobic and chauvinistic.
Day Two Magnificent Butcher Hong Kong, 1979 Director Yuen Woo-Ping
This classic kung-fu film is considered a true passing of the torch with Kwan Tak-Hing reprising his role as Wei Fei-Hong in which he started the whole genre of kung-fu with The True Story of Wong Fei-Hong (1949), and Sammo Hung playing the part of Wong Fei Hung’s trouble-making disciple Wing the butcher.
Sammo has always been my favourite of his generation of kung-fu stars for two reasons. First, while Jackie takes as his inspiration Keaton and Chaplin, Sammo draws his material from the Three Stooges. Secondly, and most importantly, Sammo brings dramatic gravitas to his parts. More than any other kung-fu star, Sammo is able to swing from comedy to tragedy, sometimes within a single scene. Unlike his “younger brother” Jackie Chan whose fight scenes are usually built around Jackie running from trouble, you tend to feel that Sammo is always holding back his inner demons, his propensity for violence, so that when the film’s villains finally anger him enough to release his inhibitions, Sammo becomes truly dangerous in a way that Jackie never can.
The other reason that this is considered an historic film is its subject. The Magnificent Butcher is Wong Fei-Hong’s most famous disciple for a reason. When Shanghai fell to the Communists, Wing and his family fled to Hong Kong, where Wing trained a whole generation of kung-fu stunt men to make films about the kung-fu that he learned from Wong Fei-Hong in Shanghai. So there is a continuity in Hong Kong cinema from the original kung-fu master to the actors who portrayed him on film.
Which is probably the great failing of this film. Don’t get me wrong, The Magnificent Butcher is a very good film, with fantastic set pieces like the calligraphy duel that begins the picture. The Drunken Master who wanders into town in the middle of the film to bedevil Wing the butcher is also quite good. With its convoluted storyline about two rival schools, two long-lost brothers and a lecher who brings them into conflict, this film is a good film, but a film about the real Magnificent Butcher and his story bridging the gap between the true kung-fu master and the cinematic kung-fu masters, that would be a great film.